Holbrooke, Biden Top Contenders for Post

Times Staff Writer

No one is picking out their curtains yet, but speculation about who might fill the top foreign policy positions in a John Kerry presidency is already intense.

Early handicapping on a Kerry secretary of State focuses primarily on three names. For many, the top two contenders are Richard C. Holbrooke, a veteran diplomat who served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who has worked with Kerry on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for two decades.

Several Democrats close to Kerry place the 62-year-old Holbrooke, now vice chairman in the same private investment firm as James A. Johnson, the director of Kerry’s vice presidential search, as the foreign policy thinker the Massachusetts senator looks to first.

Even Holbrooke’s critics -- a group that would not fit in a phone booth -- consider him brilliant, creative and energetic.


But supporters acknowledge that based on his dealings with colleagues inside government he may be one of the least diplomatic diplomats of recent times.

“You can have a dynamism with Holbrooke that is quite remarkable,” said one official who worked with him in the Clinton administration.

“But the real problem with Holbrooke is he would forget who is president.”

Biden, 61, could be another strong contender for secretary of State.

He’s considered closer to Kerry on foreign policy than any other senator, and over the past decade has helped lead Democrats away from their post-Vietnam reluctance to use military force. His biggest downside might be a tendency toward free association in speeches and interviews that could cause more ripples as secretary of State than as a senator from Delaware.

Also in the competition is Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, the 58-year-old former national security advisor for Clinton.

Berger built his connections with Kerry initially around the senator’s work to normalize American relations with Vietnam. “Berger has no enemies,” said one Democratic foreign policy insider, “which is a singular gift in this town.”

Former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, often speculated for the job under Clinton, also turns up on early lists. But Mitchell, now a corporate lawyer in Washington who recently agreed to serve as chairman of the Walt Disney Co., hasn’t been heavily involved in the Kerry campaign and some believe his age, 70, could work against him.


A dark horse could be 57-year-old Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb). Like Kerry, Hagel is a Vietnam veteran. He serves with Kerry on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, matches most Democrats in his commitment to international alliances, and would allow a new president to send a powerful message of bipartisanship.

Most Democratic observers believe Kerry is more likely to consider Hagel as a potential secretary of Defense, a position for which others tout another Republican senator who served in Vietnam: John McCain of Arizona.

One close Kerry advisor says Hagel might offer many of the same benefits without the risks associated with the fiercely independent and iconoclastic McCain.

Many Democrats believe that Rand Beers, another Vietnam veteran and former counter-terrorism director for President Bush, has positioned himself as a candidate for national security advisor with a smooth performance as the Kerry campaign’s foreign policy coordinator. But others say Beers’ foreign policy experience may not be broad enough for that position.


Ashton B. Carter, an assistant secretary of Defense under Clinton who now teaches at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is considered another potential contender.

Longtime Kerry Senate aide Nancy Stetson and James P. Rubin, the State Department’s chief spokesman under Madeleine Albright, also appear on track for high-level posts.